With the number of people experiencing homelessness on the rise, and winter fast approaching, The Lighthouse emergency shelter is bracing for some difficult, cold months ahead.
The skyrocketing cost of living, the lingering effects of the pandemic, and the loss of provincial COVID-19 funding earlier this year have forced The Lighthouse to do more with less as growing numbers of people seek out the vital services they provide.
The Lighthouse was provided with over $1 million in provincial COVID-19 funding through the pandemic, said executive director Linda Goodall. She says increased demands for service now come out of the Lighthouse’s existing budget.
Earlier this year, the County of Simcoe recorded its highest ever numbers for people experiencing homelessness, and the Lighthouse is seeing a number of new faces at its shelter, Goodall said.
On any given day, The Lighthouse’s 50-bed emergency shelter can be full and have a waitlist of up to 15 people, she lamented.
“We have 15 people on what we call our triage list almost every day,” Goodall told OrilliaMatters. “We base (who comes in) on acuity, so … maybe they're in a wheelchair, or maybe they're youth.”
Although the city and county recently provided funding for a warming centre downtown through the winter months, which will open when temperatures drop to -15, Goodall anticipates a tough winter ahead.
“The rest of the winter that's not -15, it's going to be tough, and it's really hard for our staff who answer the phone or look at somebody in the eye and say we don't have a bed,” she said.
The Lighthouse sheltered 242 individuals in its first year operating out of a new facility on Queen Street and helped 29 people access its supportive housing services.
Over that time, 49 families accessed its motel voucher program, which assists families experiencing homelessness gain short-term accommodations in area motels.
The Lighthouse was provided with $30,000 in county funding for the voucher program in April, Goodall said, but those funds, allocated for the 2022 fiscal year, were spent by June.
Now, the county provides funding for the program on a case-by-case basis.
“We had a family go in this week. There (were) two parents, three kids under five – they were living in their car, and they're now in the motel voucher program. Can you imagine?” said Goodall. “The amount of families that are experiencing homelessness has increased so greatly.”
With the effects of COVID-19 lingering on, the shelter has on several occasions had to carry out its work with reduced staffing levels as illness affects its workers and clients alike.
COVID-19 and the flu swept through the shelter from late October through mid-November, causing two clients, two volunteers, and seven staff to fall ill, which impacted The Lighthouse’s ability to carry out its services.
Capacity at the shelter fell to nearly half during that time, as staff were unable to onboard people, quarantine, and take care of additional clients at normal levels, Goodall said, though she explained that all residents who are present during such outbreaks are welcome to stay.
“The more people in a congregate living setting and high-risk congregate living setting, the more chances of an illness,” Goodall said of the recent outbreak.
“As soon as our staff were healthy enough and we were out of outbreak, we were able to go back up,” Goodall said. “Our staff were cut, so then we can't … safely have more (clients). We don't have any COVID funding anymore – it comes out of our regular budget – and we need to isolate people upstairs which means we need to staff more people, but we don't have the budget for that.”
With costs of living on the rise, Goodall said it can be difficult to help people find homes beyond the shelter, which impacts its capacity as well.
“We have people that are staying here for a lot longer than ever before,” Goodall said. “They don't have the funds available to get affordable housing and … the cost of food, they can't actually afford food and the rent.
“So what do … our housing workers do when they're trying to house individuals? it's very, very, very difficult.”